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Out in Theaters: ‘GHOSTBUSTERS’

It’s been a long road to the theater for Paul Feig and the girls of Ghostbusters. Beset by accusations of vagina-washing from a very vocal (and rather pathetic) corner of the internet, a less-than-reassuring first trailer and a borderline insufferable Fall Out Boy/Missy Elliot rendition of the iconic “Who You Gonna Call?” theme song, the remake of Harold Ramis’ much-adored 1984 supernatural-comedy had many hurdles to summit. But rather than scale the obstacles in its path, Ghostbusters dispenses a powerful proton pack of carefully constructed charisma, nostalgia-fueled callbacks and no-holds-barred performances, blasting the besmirching naysayers to smithereens like cardboard cutouts of Slimer in a Chinatown back alley. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE HUNSTMAN: WINTER’S WAR’

The Huntsman: Winter’s War suffers from colon-movie spina bifida. Its curvy backbone veers near and far to collect the disparate parts necessary in making this part of a larger cinematic universe. In this case, that universe is Universal Picture’s Snow White, a bleak fairy tale retold with undeniable visual style and largely charmless aplomb in 2012 with an aggressively apathetic Kristen Stewart at the forefront and a scenery-smacking, mean-mugging Chris Hemsworth as her side piece. Putting his considerable beef to good use as the movie’s romantic tine/battle-weary whetting stone to slide K-Stew’s frosty edge against, Hemsworth proved a fleeting flash of joy in an otherwise grim and grimly serious saga. His burly Eric however hardly seemed an intriguing (or popular) enough character to stage a spin-off upon but if The Huntsman is proof of anything, it’s that adding a hefty scoop of Jessica Chastain, a dollop of dwarves and a much more tongue-in-cheek approach to this whole fairy tale thing may be just the spoonful of medicine the script doctor called for. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘IN THE HEART OF THE SEA’

Chris Hemsworth was a rare find for Thor because he seems like a man beamed out of another dimension. The lacy lexicon of Marvel’s quasi-Shakespearean tragedy boasts Hemsworth’s Australian-cum-Nobleman accent, one with an ethereally hard-to-place, far, far away quality to it. When Hemsworth is smashed down to Earth and asked to perform New England for Ron Howard’s not-quite-Moby-Dick Moby Dick story he musters a punishing take on a Nantucket accent that turns the r’s in ah’s (that is when he remembers he’s supposed to be mussing up his voice at all.) Read More

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Out in Theaters: VACATION

Harold Ramis took the family vacation movie off cruise-control in 1983, proffering a deliciously crass road trip film lead by an insolent (and borderline sociopathic) father figure in Chevy Chase and penned by none other than the mighty John Hughes. A sickly twist on nuclear morals and unadulterated, thoroughly punitive obsession, National Lampoon’s Vacation etched a dark twist on small town American dreams, couching the woes of extended family, the thirst for adventure and the troubles of enclosed spaces in with themes of adultery, abuse, abandonment and totally warped family values; with a corporate theme park ironically standing in as a last bastion of joy. Ramis’ was no small feat – he had crafted a thing of jet black social commentary that sang out with sharp barbs of comedy. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

What to say about The Avengers: Age of Ultron? It’s certainly a Marvel movie; a spectacle-heavy rationing of motormouthed zingers, busy with whip-pan, slo-mo action montages and done up like a prom queen with CG glitz. It’s the insatiable younger brother to Joss Whedon’s initial compulsory corporate softball tournament; a large and in charge super-conglomeration that rarely stops to make time to make sense, and though darker (emotionally), bigger (logistically) and meaner (spiritually), it’s not nearly as much fun as when space worms were involved. The Marvel brand has been defined by its sense of “fun” and Age of Ultron certainly houses the brand of larger-than-life, escapist entertainment that Marvel fans have emptied out their pockets for in the past but it misses the shock-and-awe boat that installment numero uno rode in on, instead serving up a welting reminder of the inconsequential, aggressively episodic nature of this whole shared universe business. By the end of Ultron’s short-lived age, tables have been set but little has actually changed. This is Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Age of Redundancy. Read More

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Out in Theaters: BLACKHAT

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The only way to make sense of Blackhat is to imagine Hansel (of the Zoolander variety, not he of the breadcrumbs) taking an online computer science class, changing his name to Michael Mann and setting out to wow the world by going “inside the computer.” The result is 135 minutes of excruciating, unequivocal gobbledegook led by the most frigid onscreen couple since Joel Schumacher‘s Mr. Freeze squabbled with Poison Ivy.  To call it bad is a lie by degree; it’s impossibly poor. For over two simply unbearable hours, join Mann as he sullies his good name with a film so awesomely abhorrent you’ll be doubting that he (he of international critical acclaim and assorted Oscar nominations) ever stepped foot on set.

Unfortunately, Mann’s fingerprints are undeniably all over Blackhat. His signature wide-lens nocturnal cityscapes are too crisp to be the work of even a dedicated understudy. If we’re digging deep to give Mann points (something we really shouldn’t be doing for a movie this embarrassingly bad), at least those fleeting heli-shots of x or y city at night provides temporary respite from the narrative implosion happening all around it. With force, Mann throws down the gauntlet for a movie where the establishing shots are incontestably better than the actual goings on of the film.

The plot (if you’re generous enough to refer to this “RAT after cheese” hunt as a plot) consists of a rogue hacker con (Chris Hemsworth) furloughed by the FBI in an attempt to hunt down those responsible for bringing a Chinese nuclear reactor to the brink of a meltdown, old MIT buddies reunited under the most improbable of circumstances, a kid sister sidekick with eyes for the hunky Hemsworth and one ESL-lesson shy of a TOEFL-degree and evil hackers who lounge around with their pale bellies protruding. Blackhat pivots on the oh-so-exciting prospects of coding, stock manipulation and the DOW value of soy. And eventually tin. If only 1995 Michael Mann could hear how tinny it sounds.

Hemsworth isn’t to blame for the bed-shitting puddle of yuck that is Blackhat (though he could have tried a touch less humorlessness), nor is seasoned compatriot Viola Davis (though I’d like to have a word with her heavy-handed makeup artist). The other leads though – those of the Asian persuasion – seem culled from the international recycling bin. As the female lead, Wei Tang has less restraint than a local weatherman and her consistent jumbling of volume and cadence leads to some wonky audio issues that a finished, wide-release film should never encounter. The conversations are loud, then inexplicably quiet and then overbearingly tremble-y. Like someone sat on the audio control board and no one cared enough to fix it.

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But Blackhat is filled with those brush-it-off-the-shoulder moments, as it succumbs steadily to a tide of directionless, thoughtless bunk. The perceived mounting suspense-by-laptop is as exciting as waiting two hours to discover a broken roller coaster at the end of the queue. Or watching a friend play a video game. As in watching only them, without being privy to what’s happening on the screen. For two hours.

The second time that Mann dips into the computer circuits to spider around for an improbable amount of time, you know you’re in trouble. When the leads lunge at each other like caged rabbits, holding back hearty howls is as impossible as enjoying the film. It’s all the worst habits of bad filmmaking puked onto the screen and shown over and over again. If The Fifth Estate is a golden boy for laughable hacker drama gone wrong, Blackhat dares to one-up it.
 
When affairs get gun-fighty, you breathe a sigh of relief. “Well at least Mann knows how to shoot the hell out of a gun fight. We’re all set here guys. Right?” Wrong. One couldn’t predict how horribly clunky and straight-to-video the transpiring blaze of gunfire is if they had a crystal ball. It’s almost unreasonable to be expected to come to terms with the fact that the same Michael Mann who directed the infamously taut bank shootout of Heat filmed what is quite reasonably the worst wide-release gunfight of the 21st century. Hang your head heavy Mr. Mann, feel the shame waft over you. Either that or your captors should feel rather guilty (“Where is the real Michael Mann and what have you done with him?!”)

The hacker thriller is a tough cookie to crack and has led to more certifiably misfires than any other action subgenre I can summon (yes, even more so than the geri-action sort). The closest anyone’s ever gotten to a great hacker thriller is The Matrix, and I use the comparison softly because calling it a hacker thriller is me admittedly bending the lines. Michael Mann’s film doesn’t come close to great. It’s not even within the realm of good. It couldn’t see the periphery of good with 400x binoculars. To have his name attached to it is to bear a Scarlet Letter from this point hence. Insufferable and tacitly overlong, his shameful film is an early contender for being crowned worst film of the year. Play at being Neo for a day: dodge a bullet and skip Blackhat.

F

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Out in Theaters: THOR: THE DARK WORLD

“Thor: The Dark World”
Directed by Alan Taylor
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portland, Stellan Skarsgård, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie AlexanderZachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Chris O’Dowd
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
112 Mins
PG-13

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Between Chris Hemsworth‘s washboard abs and the razzle-dazzle signature FX of Marvel‘s brand, Thor: The Dark World uses blinding awesomeness to cast shade on its portended plotting. First and foremost a Marvel movie, this second (or third if you’re counting The Avengers) outing for the God of Thunder rounds all of the superhero studio’s likely bases, but a gilded touch from Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor helps bring an epic scope to the proceedings. Far exceeding the first film in terms of visual panache and high stakes action beats, the crowning gem of the Thor camp continues to be Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki. Deviant, seething, and locked away for treason, Loki may not be as much of a focal point as he was as the big baddie in The Avengers but he persists in being the most complex and unpredictable character in Marvel’s stable.

This time around, Thor lacks the megalomaniacal egoism of the first installment. His (massively sized) head is distracted by the clout of his lost love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), waiting for him back on Earth two years after Thor’s first departure. But a new evil stirs in the Dark Elves, a race that predates all living beings – warriors born of darkness (whatever that means) and intent on bringing all nine realms back under their control, demanding Thor and his hammer’s attention.

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Lead by Malekith (a wasted Christopher Eccleston), the Dark Elves are a race defeated thousands of years ago by Thor’s grandpappy in a cold open that somewhat successfully tries to harness the cold open of Lord of the Rings. Thought to be extinct (in a royally dickish move, Malekith sacrifices his entire race to make his secret escape), Malekith and his inner circle of bad boy elves come out of hibernation, scowling like pissed off grizzly bears, on the dawn of an intergalactic alignment, seeking the means to their universal dominance – a living relic known only as the Aether. But on that fateful battleground thousands of years ago, the war-worn Asgardians (in a move of really poor planning) hid the Aether away on some secret dark world, unguarded and, for all intents and purposes, forgotten.

Back on Earth, a now nudist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is the only one who has any clue about the impending intergalactic alignment to come and what it may mean for an Earth recently savaged by malevolent aliens, but he gets tossed in the Loony bin for streaking around Stonehenge. Because what better way to convince people that you’ve got a great theory than to strip off your skivvies and let your bits fly free? In his absence, Foster and the permanently obnoxious Darcy (Kat Dennings) begin to discover rifts in the space continuum, illustrated by floating trucks and invisible wormholes. By an act of supreme chance, Foster ends up transported to where the Asgardians have hidden the Aether away and becomes infected with its power/poison. Cue her face-slapping reunion with Thor and the impetus for the events to come. 

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As much as the cookie-cutter nature of these films has become an almost necessary byproduct of the Marvel brand, Thor: The Dark World proves that cleverness is a viable trump card for cliché. Using illusions and false expectation to pull the wool over the audience’s eye, The Dark World employs many of Loki’s tricks to heighten our sense of not knowing what’s going to happen. However old the malignant villain with schemes of world (here universe) domination may be getting, it’s the journey to their inevitable defeat that matters most and Taylor seems to know this fact well.

But it’s not a Marvel movie without visual flourish swinging from the rafters and Taylor and Marvel’s battalion of special effects up the ante from previous endeavors. With more world hopping than any of the former Marvel flicks (standalones and The Avengers included) Thor: The Dark World really opens up the universe to new prospects. The transition from realm to realm provides for welcome scenery changes as well as a nifty cornerstone for the big set pieces – later used to great effect in the perfunctory third act showdown – while also establishing the grounds for Marvel’s biggest risk pick yet, The Guardians of the Galaxy (who get the standard tease treatment in the mid-credits sequence).

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As the Marvel Cinematic Universe opens its doors to a whole new set of possibilities, they have also perfected their balancing act of big action sequences with casually cunning humor – a proven recipe for franchise gold, now tastier than ever. Here, bigger is better as The Dark World benefits greatly from the ever-increasing magnitude of its dazzling set pieces. The once sparkling Asgard of Thor has been cleaned up in its dressing down, offering more grit than polish this time round. Even the flashy rainbow bridge is wowing now, a far cry from the chintzy silliness of the first. A mid-film airborne assault on Asgard showcases Taylor’s knack for staging battle and begins a course of acceleration that doesn’t let up until the final credits roll (only to be interrupted not once, but twice by post credit scenes).

Many amongst the critical community have cried foul play of late, knocking Marvel for a lack of originality and constant adherence to formula, but they seem to forget that the reason Marvel continues with this low-risk, high-reward rubric is because they are so consistently satisfying. Thor: The Dark World may be exactly what you expect and offer little artistry but Hollywood was founded on escapism and it’s this escapism that Taylor has harnessed so well here. Sure going to the theater to experience heartbreak, tragedy, or profound self-exploration may be more “important” – perhaps even essential to our own personal growth – but we experience enough heartbreak in our own lives, not to mention the daily news cycle, to constantly crave more. Sometimes it’s enough to sit back and watch a superhero smash bad guys and save the day because there’s nowhere else in life where we can sit back and know full well good will prevail.

B

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